How to Think

By Alan Jacobs

Social Approval & Inner ring

  • Why are people so puritanical about the Puritans? “Very simply,” Robinson writes, “it is a great example of our collective eagerness to disparage (regard or represent as being of little worth) without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.”
  • The more useful a term is for marking my inclusion in a group, the less interested I will be in testing the validity of my use of that term against—well, against any kind of standard.

Why would people ever think, when thinking deprives them of “the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved”

  • When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when everyone knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not.”
  • In all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”
  • “To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours….Over a drink or a cup of coffee, disguised as a triviality and sandwiched between two jokes…the hint will come.” And when it does come, “you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world.”
  • Once we are drawn in, and allowed in, once we’re part of the Inner Ring, we maintain our status in part by coming up with those post hoc rationalizations that confirm our group identity and, equally important, confirm the nastiness of those who are Outside, who are Not Us.

The Inner Ring discourages, mocks, and ruthlessly excludes those who ask uncomfortable questions.

  • The genuine community is open to thinking and questioning, so long as those thoughts and questions come from people of goodwill.
  • None of them makes any effort to make another conform to some preestablished mold. No one wants even Toad to change fundamentally, only to exercise a bit more self-restraint. Each is accepted for his own distinctive contribution to the group: if it were less distinctive, it would be less valuable.
  • We have likewise seen how the pressures imposed on us by Inner Rings make genuine thinking almost impossible by making belonging contingent on conformity.
  • The only real remedy for the dangers of false belonging is the true belonging to, true membership in, a fellowship of people who are not so much like-minded as like-hearted.

The more people have invested in a particular project, the more reluctant they are to abandon it, no matter how strong the evidence indicating that it’s a lost cause.

  • What’s fascinating about how most people use social media is that they, looking to fortify their position (to return for a moment to my earlier metaphor), do this work for themselves. They self-discipline, self-control, by weeding out dissonant voices, alternative points of view.
  • You can know whether your social environment is healthy for thinking by its attitude toward ideas from the outgroup. If you quote some unapproved figure, or have the “wrong” website open in your browser, and someone turns up his nose and says, “I can’t believe you’re reading that crap”—generally, not a good sign.
  • In search of social belonging, and the blessed shortcuts that we can take when we’re in the presence of like-minded people, we come to rely on keywords, and then metaphors, and then myths—and at every stage habits become more deeply ingrained in us, habits that inhibit our ability to think.

Thinking for oneself

  • How often do we say “she really thinks for herself” when someone rejects views that we hold? No: when someone departs from what we believe to be the True Path, our tendency is to look for bad influences.

Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for “thinking for herself” they usually mean “ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.”

  • One night when the moon was full, the older, who was about four, led his younger brother into the front garden of his house and ordered him to walk back and forth. As little brother faithfully did so, big brother carefully observed him—and the moon. “I was trying to see if the moon follows him when he walks,” the older brother explained. “But it doesn’t, it only follows me.”
  • Whatever we think we know, whether we’re right or wrong, arises from our interactions with other human beings. Thinking independently, solitarily, “for ourselves,” is not an option.

Feeling vs Analysis

  • “The habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings…when no other mental habit is cultivated, and the analyzing spirit remains without its natural complements and correctives.”
  • He saw little good in any cultivation of the feelings, and none at all in cultivating them through the imagination, which he thought was only cultivating illusions. It was in vain I urged on him that the imaginative emotion which an idea, when vividly conceived, excites in us, is not an illusion but a fact, as real as any of the other qualities of objects.
  • Many of us, seems to have unwittingly internalized the idea that when professional athletes do the thing they’re paid to do, they’re not acting according to the workaday necessity (like the rest of us) but rather are expressing with grace and energy their inmost competitive instincts, and doing so in a way that gives them delight. We need to believe that because much of our delight in watching them derives from our belief in their delight. (In much the same way we enjoy watching the flight of birds, especially big birds of prey, associating such flying with freedom even though birds actually fly from necessity: they need to eat. And yet we have no interest in watching members of our own species drive to McDonald’s.)
  • Athletes are like the rest of us: they find some degree of value in their work, but work is by no means the only thing they care about. Our ability to think well will be determined to some considerable degree by whom those others are.

In Other words

  • And straw-manning is a version of in-other-wordsing. But it’s also possible to in-other-words someone’s argument not to make it seem that she holds simplistic views but rather to indicate that she holds views belonging to your adversary, to your outgroup.

We use these heuristics, these strategies of simplification, all the time; we just don’t like them used on us. We don’t want our lives summarized with an acronym, or our deaths with a bitterly ironic joke. We’re funny that way. We don’t like our distinctiveness, our me-ness, compromised or ignored.

  • What I call “in-other-wordsing.” We see it every day. Someone points at an argument—a blog post, say, or an op-ed column—and someone else replies, “In other words, you’re saying…” And inevitably the argument, when put in other words, is revealed to be vacuous or wicked. Now, there’s no doubt that writers can use words evasively, to indicate or suggest things that they wouldn’t dare to say straight out.
  • Even worse, perhaps, is the Twitter version, which begins like this: “Shorter David Brooks,” or “Shorter Pope Francis,” or whomever the object of scrutiny is, followed by a colon and then an absurdly reductive account, not of what the person actually said but of what the tweeter is absolutely confident that the person meant.

Lumpers & Splitters

  • The key to playing a really nasty character, and saying and doing the really nasty things that make up that character, is to realize that in different circumstances you could be that person.
  • The ones who like to put organisms in existing categories he called “lumpers”; the ones who like to create new categories he called “splitters.”
  • Our social taxonomies are useful, but if we think of them as something more than that, if we employ them to enforce strict separation between one person and another, if we treat them as solid and impermeable barriers that make mutual understanding impossible, they serve us poorly.
  • The primary problem is that, of course, we really don’t want to be or want anyone else to be permanently and universally open-minded. No one wants to hear anyone say that, while there is certainly general social disapproval of kidnapping, we should keep an open mind on the subject.
  • We need to be able to make reliable assessments about the state of our knowledge, in such a way that when necessary we can hold back from taking any position until we learn more; and we need to accept that while knowledge may be analog, decision-making is often digital, that is, binary.


  • “A book is like a mirror: if a donkey looks in, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.”
  • “People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.” “Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even existence, of other matrices.”
  • Technologies of communication that allow us to overcome the distances of space also allow us to neglect the common humanity we share with the people we now find inhabiting our world.
  • Damasio discovered that when people have limited or nonexistent emotional responses to situations, whether through injury or congenital defect, their decision-making is seriously compromised. They use reason alone—and, it turns out, reason alone is an insufficient guide to action.

By reading, a man already having some wisdom can gain far more; but it is equally true that reading can make a man already inclined toward foolishness far, far more foolish.

  • This failure is essentially an ethical failure. It is the failure to recognize other dialects, other contexts, other people, as having value that needs to be respected—especially, it’s tempting to say, if you want those people to respect your dialects and contexts and friends and family members,
  • Human beings, like you, who happen through circumstance or temperament to have come to different conclusions than yours. This does not mean that their views are correct, or even as likely to be correct as your own; you need not admit any such thing, but when they are wrong they’re wrong in the same way that you are, when that happens to you (as it assuredly does)


  • When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes. Take a walk, or weed the garden, or chop some vegetables. Get your body involved: your body knows the rhythms to live by, and if your mind falls into your body’s rhythm, you’ll have a better chance of thinking.

Value learning over debating. Don’t “talk for victory.”

  • As best you can, online and off, avoid the people who fan flames.
  • Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness.
  • If you do have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness, or else lose your status in your community, then you should realize that it’s not a community but rather an Inner Ring.
  • Gravitate as best you can, in every way you can, toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity.

Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with. Listen to them for a time without responding. Whatever they say, think it over.

  • Patiently, and as honestly as you can, assess your repugnances.
  • Sometimes the “ick factor” is telling; sometimes it’s a distraction from what matters.
  • Beware of metaphors and myths that do too much heavy cognitive lifting; notice what your “terministic screens” are directing your attention to—and what they’re directing your attention away from; look closely for hidden metaphors and beware the power of myth.
  • Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use, without indulging in in-other-wordsing.
  • Be brave.
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